13 November 02008

Fighting cultural surplus: a review of Bill Drummond's 17

Bill Drummond's 17When Brian Eno released his Generative Music 1 album — music that is created 'on the fly' by a computer following a set of rules that Eno programmed, released on floppy disk, and now virtually unplayable on any current hardware — he wrote "I really think it is possible that our grandchildren will look at us in wonder and say: 'you mean you used to listen to exactly the same thing over and over again?'".

If you were feeling mean, you might classify a strand of Bill Drummond's musical output as an agitprop popularisation of some of Eno's ideas. 17 fits that profile, as Drummond wants to play his part in getting rid of recorded music and perhaps not just recorded music. "Imagine waking up tomorrow, all music has disappeared," begins one of his many manifestos. He declares Year Zero in the history of music, razing what has gone before and starting again — and all of this single-handedly, or with a bit of help from some travelling companions and some yet-to-be-convinced schoolchildren.

What's interesting about the campaign Drummond conjures in 17 is that it re-interprets the current state of the recording industry not as a commercial crisis, but as a cultural one.

recorded music has run its course, it has been mined out. It is so 20th century, like paper money and fossil fuels… all (or should that be 99.99 percent?) of music being written, composed, created [is] done to be recorded, and once recorded, to be experienced in a very limited way.

The first hundred or so pages are carried by Drummond's commitment to asking the basic-but-necessary questions and articulating his discontent:

What is music for? And why do we listen to it in the way that we do? And what would it be like if…? But the big questions seemed to be 'Why am I so frustrated with it?' and 'Why do I want it to be something other than it is?' and 'Why do I want it to exist in some other sort of way than it already does?'
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1 May 02008

Culture and Learning: response to consultation paper

A couple of months ago the UK think tank Demos published a consultation paper with the title Culture and Learning: Towards a New Agenda. The paper aims to challenge cultural professionals and educationalists "to provide a new and coherent direction for creative learning and for encouraging creativity through culture", and the consultation period runs until next Tuesday.

I find it a curious intervention, because in some ways it seems to be swimming against the tide. There is a strong emphasis on centralisation and standardisation, the favoured interventions of old-school bureaucrats.

Hat tip to Bridget McKenzie whose own response to this consultation brought it to my attention. And following her lead in making her response public, here is mine, organised according to the six issues that the paper encourages us to address.

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8 May 02007

Give me back my tags: portable attention data

Locked up tagsHaving recently moved and been caught up in a silly broadband snafu, I spent a couple of weeks without regular Internet access: the previous entry on this blog was composed in the local pub, which offers free wi-fi along with a pint of Youngs bitter. This interrupted form of net access is fine for keeping up with important emails or news on the web. What I missed, though, was the Last.fm tag radio streams that I've built up over the last six months (in fact I missed them more than my CD and LP collection that I still haven't been able to unpack for other reasons).

Throughout this disturbance I had continuous access to my iTunes library (3,000 tracks — large by some standards, modest by others). Many of the artists and tracks in the library are ones I've tagged on Last.fm, but I don't have access to those tags from within iTunes or without Internet access.

What I really wanted to do was apply my Last.fm tags to the relevant entries in my iTunes library. And my MyStrands tags, while I'm about it. In fact I started tagging with MyStrands first. My tags are still there, but I rarely (if ever) add to them these days, as I realised I was very constrained in getting value out of them. But I tag a lot on Last.fm: I find it a great way of gradually expanding the penumbra of music that I know a bit about, but don't know very well. Firstly, it can be like listening to the radio and using tags to mark the songs you want to come back to, or include in a playlist. Secondly, if I read a review or a story about a band that sounds interesting, I tag them for checking out later.

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17 May 02006

Behaviour patterns in collecting music and video

Delicious Monster screenshotI'm looking at patterns in how people collect different media, and how collecting relates to repeat listening/viewing/using. In the UK, estimates of the average number of CDs in a collection vary between 126 and 178 for men, 135 for women. Are there any similar figures for DVDs or games, or for US markets? I'm still looking.

I'm also doubtful about whether reliable figures exist for the number of digital downloads in collections. There was a report last year indicating that the average number of tracks on an MP3 player is 375, with 50% of players having fewer than 100 tracks. But this is a fast-moving, unstable area, clouded by allegations that 'most' tracks on players are 'stolen', which can't make it any easier to get reliable reports from users.

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13 May 02006

Book announcement: Net, Blogs and Rock'n'Roll

People have access to vastly more music, video and other entertainment than ten years ago. In the case of music, record companies are releasing twice as many new albums per year. Not only that, but some are 'rescuing' old and deleted tracks for release in the digital marketplace.

So how do people find out about all this material? How do they judge what they might like? I'm writing a book that addresses these questions. The title is Net, Blogs and Rock'n'Roll: Who knows what's next in media and music in the new era of digital discovery and the download culture (the lengthy subtitle may change). It will be published next year by Nicholas Brealey Publishing, UK publishers of John Battelle's The Search and many other titles on digital enterprise and learning.

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4 May 02006

Aggregating the non-music stuff about music

screen grab of MusicStrands mash-up toolThe MusicStrands Labs seem to have a good head of steam at the moment: it's worth keeping an eye on their blog. The recent announcement that caught my eye was their music-related content discovery (we need a better term for this!) mash-up. The thumbnail on the right (click it to enlarge) shows the Wikipedia entry, YouTube videos, Flickr photos, blogs indexed by Technorati, and goals entered on 43things, all relating to Neil Young.

It's a simple but effective application of Web 2.0, and would become even more valuable if and when it could aggregate reviews, interviews and gig listings in your country. All these 'collateral assets' can enhance people's discovery and learning about music. The MusicStrands tool is the closest thing I've seen yet to the outline for social software to enhance personal media collections that I wrote eighteen months ago.

2 May 02006

Experimental prototype of BBC Programme Catalogue

I missed this at first in the slew of announcements about the BBC Creative Future initiative, but last week the BBC launched an 'experimental prototype' of its programme catalogue, comprising details of nearly a million programmes (here's the relevant press release).

Tom Loosemore from the Beeb spoke about this at an event I attended last Thursday, and described his delight at finding the detailed records that their librarians had been keeping for decades. Just last week I was criticising the many online music databases that don't recognise that "The Beatles" and "Beatles, The" might be the same thing. The BBC benefits from having proper information professionals (and at the same time threatens them with job cuts, but that's corporate rationality for you).

Nevertheless, I did find the odd lapse in the data, along with a range of trainspotter entries, during a twenty-minute play with the catalogue. (These are simply observations, not criticisms, as they all fall within the disclaimer on the home page.)

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23 April 02006

Update on playlist services

In preparing the White Bicycles playlist yesterday, I revisited a subset of the playlist services that I reviewed last year and in January.

Here are some notes on what's changed, plus some notes on different contexts for searching for tracks.

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17 April 02006

Visualisation of music collections

thumbnail of visualisation from Musicstrands research paperThe picture on the left is an annotated version of a possible visualisation of someone's music collection, as proposed and described in a research paper available from Musicstrands. The segments in the circle represent different genres of music within the collection; the distance of each track (represented by dots) from the centre shows how old or recent it is; adjacent tracks all come from the same album; and the colour highlights show whether a track is part of a current playlist. I've shrunk the image down to about half size, partly to minimise accusations of infringing the authors' copyright, but also to give some indication of what this visualisation would look like on the screen of a mobile phone, iPod or other handheld device — not much use, I think you'll agree (download the paper, 580 KB pdf, for full-size image and explanation). I take that as reinforcement for my instinct that iPods, phones and such like will not be the main music device for serious music fans (people with more than a thousand tracks), but will continue to be just portable playback devices.

However, I'm not writing here principally about music devices, but about music visualisation in general, and assuming no particular constraints on screen size. I'm interested in visualisation for people organising and managing their own collections, sharing them with others and exploring others' collections, plus generalised visualisations of what might be called the 'music universe' (i.e. all the tracks and artists in the world), and how music maps onto other non-musical domains.

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13 April 02006

Copyright infringement in shared playlists: don't blame the carrier?

Webjay play pageWhen I created a playlist on Webjay last year, I noted the varying legal statuses of the recordings I included — from public domain to creative commons to promotional 'giveaway' — including one I deleted when I knew it was not authorised and had read Webjay's legal guidance.

This Reuters article seems aimed at stirring up trouble for Webjay (and its relatively new owner, Yahoo!), claiming it "makes downloading the Beatles' music or Kanye West's full-length video as easy as a keyword search and a click of a mouse". Well, the Webjay legal guidance does say (perhaps inadvisedly), "[Webjay] helps you find music like Google helps you to find web pages". What they mean by this comparison, however, is that Webjay isn't responsible for making the music available, any more than Google is responsible for publishing all the web pages it indexes. So is Webjay's case being highlighted unfairly?

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1 February 02006

Publishing your perspective and expertise with Squidoo

Here's another Web-2.0-style tool for aggregating information and links. It's the idea of Seth Godin, who has made his name from a series of books on innovative approaches to marketing in the age of the web. He sees this service, called Squidoo as a means for others to make their names in their areas of expertise — as captured in Squidoo's tagline, "a co-op of everyday experts".

I've created my own Squidoo 'lens', reviewed some other people's, and read Seth's free ebook about the concept behind squidoo. What follows are my reflections on these.

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30 November 02005

A cure for messy music metadata?

Gracenote has added over 650,000 CDs to its database in the seven and a half months since I last checked. That's quite a lot, and unfortunately it seems likely that there a significant number of duplicate records among them — cases where the same CD appears with the title or artist name written in a slightly different format. I noted before that the Gracenote database used four different ways of writing the titles of the six CDs in the Anthology of American Folk Music collection — now there seem to be one or two extra ways on top of the original four.

These inconsistencies create annoying problems for people trying to find particular albums or tracks on their MP3 players, as noted in this Wired article by Dan Goodin. His solution is to get tag editor software and sort out the metadata formats the way you want them, on your own. But surely there should be a less labour-intensive option?

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28 October 02005

How niche radio combines broadcast and on-demand formats

A whole radio station dedicated exclusively to one artist? That's what US satellite radio broadcaster Sirius is offering from next week in the shape of E Street Radio, promising "round-the-clock Springsteen music" — at least until the end of next January.

As well as the standard album tracks, there will be musical exclusives and interviews. Whether the music will be wall-to-wall Bruce, or whether it will include related material like the artists that influenced him or were influenced by him, is unclear. But this radio 'first' may be a harbinger of a new format of music listening that combines the cyclical patterns of broadcasting with the niche targeting of on-demand technologies.

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20 October 02005

Sharing book recommendations

Based on my reading this year, I've added some more book recommendations to the Stuff We Like web site. This community site shares the tag-based 'folksonomy' approach of flickr and del.icio.us. It also shares the links to online retailers of some music playlisting services like Soundflavor or UpTo11.net — though Stuff We Like is not-for-profit and any commissions go to beneficiaries.

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4 October 02005

Record labels make their own documentaries

Bob Dylan album sales have registered a tenfold increase in the wake of the Dylan documentary produced by PBS and the BBC. With windfalls like that, it's not surprising that major and independent record labels are getting into the business of making their own documentaries and features.

Mute is among the early UK labels starting to offer podcasts related to its releases. And Universal is reported to be making its own TV documentary 'infomercials' to help sell box sets of its catalogue.

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9 September 02005

In-depth music documentary sources

While I was working through all the pages on this site I listened to the last six or seven episodes of The Story of Atlantic on the BBC Radio Player. They were broadcast on 6 Music Plays It Again, and you can still catch some episodes if you're quick.

This was a 14-hour series made by the BBC — presumably before the days of extensive independent production — in 01988. It's a salutary sign of the scope and seriousness of commissioning back then, in the days before the market was flooded with specialist music magazines forever digging up in-depth features on lost Syd Barrett sessions recorded in a sauna in Croydon. Rarely does any music documentary subject get more than one hour-long radio programme these days.

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22 June 02005

An American ballad collection: Playlist #3

A few weeks ago, I started reading the collection of essays The Rose and the Briar, which re-imagines America through the lens of its ballads — mostly from the twentieth century, though the origins of some go back much further (and to parts of the British Isles). As soon as I started reading, I realised that it would be a frustrating experience unless I could hear the songs being written about.

There is a CD to accompany the book, but it's only available on import in the UK, so I couldn't get it quickly. Instead I turned to the web, since several versions of the ballads, particularly the older ones, are freely available in various audio formats. I compiled a selection of them in a playlist on webjay, so that you can hear them on your computer. (This is the third in a series of shared online playlists — see #1 and #2.)

There are clearly going to be more of these book-CD tie-ins — see the Love Supreme book-CD-radio promotion, for example — but what scope is there for audience-generated resources that augment products in the market place, while also helping to broaden and deepen the audience?

The rest of this posting starts to address this very general question in the specific terms of compiling a Rose and the Briar playlist, focusing on availability of material, its quality and the legal issues.

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17 June 02005

Licensing of BBC music audio and video

For those of us trying to read the tea leaves concerning how different parts of the enormous BBC archive may be licensed in the future, this Guardian article on a Universal-BBC deal makes interesting reading. "Anything ever recorded or filmed by the BBC by Universal artists since the 1920s to the present day could be sold on CD or DVD," according to the article, and "both the music label… and BBC Worldwide hope to earn several million pounds from the five-year deal".

So it doesn't look as if these music recordings are going to form part of the Creative Archive. The article refers to the BBC being "hell-bent on being a record label" two years ago, as though it has retrenched from issuing extensive music material since then. (Here's BBC Worldwide's music page, and Googling found me this curio history of BBC Records.)

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4 June 02005

Incense and Playlist #2

An anecdote from yesterday evening's Twisted Folk gig. Arriving a few minutes early, and alone, I went straight to my seat rather than hang around in the bar. There were only four or five people in the stalls when Devendra Banhart jumped down off the stage, and criss-crossed the rows of seats carrying a smoking incense stick to fumigate the space. Now I liked the idea of this: it demonstrated an unusual attention to detail, a bit of an Alan Watts touch, and not many acts care about how their gigs smell. But just as he was disappearing back up on stage, a security guy appeared at the back of the stalls, with the exasperated air of someone who's spent the whole afternoon curtailing the eccentricities of a bunch weirdy-beardies. You know the type: haircut like a worn bogbrush, and an abrasively nasal tone as he spoke into his walkie-talkie, "Gary, can you ask him to extinguish that?!" (And yet this was the same venue that, eighteen months ago, tolerated Julian Cope performing with one leg slung over the parapet of the circle — not to mention his unconventional cohorts.)

Loosely connected — M.Ward is the common denominator — is the second instalment of my playing around with different online playlist services. Compared with the first one, this was dashed off very quickly.

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29 May 02005

Playlist #1: Neil Young celebrity playlist

I'd lay a large bet that Neil Young doesn't have an iPod. He's been waging a war on digital compression since the early days of CDs, and is on record as saying that MP3s are even worse than CDs: "MP3 is a dog; the quality sucks. It's all compressed and the data compression — it's terrible".

But in a fictional universe where Young did have an iPod, what would he have on it? Previously I suggested that an 'imaginary' celebrity playlist be more interesting than a real celebrity playlist. (Here are some examples of such imaginary playlists.) To play with this idea, I've created my own fictional version of what Neil Young might compile.

There are several web-based services for playlist creation, sharing and community review. I've tried out a few of these and you can view one version of this playlist on the Art of the Mix site. Another version on the Soundflavor site has clips of the tracks, but since the library of clips doesn't cover all the tracks I wanted, the listing is slightly different. [Update, 9 June 02005: for comparison, I've added a third version on Upto11.net.]

I'll write a review of my experiences of the utility and usability of different playlist services another time, but for now here is my playlist and the liner notes to explain it.

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12 May 02005

BBC geek archive (sort of)

One news service to which I subscribe described the backstage.bbc.co.uk beta as "the talked-about BBC content archive", which confuses it with the pilot of the Creative Archive, which it isn't. But it's easy to see how this confusion arises. The backstage site headline (at the time of writing) is "Build what you want using BBC content", which is pretty close to one of the stated purposes of the Creative Archive.

backstage.bbc.co.uk is targeted more at techies than at 'creative media' producers — a distinction that is becoming increasingly blurred. The content that it offers is not programmes but a collection of RSS feeds and APIs (RSS definition, API definition). A software development kit is also promised in the near future. This content and data isn't licensed under the Creative Archive Licence but under some terms of use that have a remarkably similar gist to the CA Licence.

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27 April 02005

The Roots of London Calling

A few weeks ago, I advocated the creation of 'imaginary' celebrity playlists, which could become an interesting form of musical essay on both the celebrity and the acts in his/her playlist. I'm working on one for Neil Young, which so far may include tracks from The Shadows, Roy Orbison, Otis Redding's cover of Satisfaction, Bobby Darin, Linda Ronstadt, Devo and, of course, The Premiers' Farmer John.

In the meantime, Andy Kershaw's latest programme has a fairly literal take on this theme, which he refers to as "the roots of The Clash's London Calling" — Andy's "most complete rock'n'roll album of all time". He plays three Clash songs from the album, and four original reggae, ska and rock'roll tracks on which these were based. The rest of the show is pretty damn good too: you can hear it online until Sunday.

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16 April 02005

BBC Online Music Library tender

The BBC has a Request for Information from potential suppliers of an Online Music Library. These suppliers are invited to provide details, within the next month, of the type of music content they can supply, the metadata that goes with it, the available audio formats, and any agreements with music industry publishers and licensing bodies. Full details are in the document you can download from this page.

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13 April 02005

Creative Archive launches licence; where's the pilot?

The 'Creative Archive Licence Group' is launched today at creativearchive.bbc.co.uk. While the identity politics of URLs seem to have the BBC still in the lead on this development, the lack of BBC branding suggests they are not going to have exclusive 'ownership' of it. The British Film Institute, Channel 4 and the Open University are also founding members of the Licence Group. The BFI already has a holding page for its own Creative Archive.

Re-reading the notes I took last December, which referred to a 'pilot service' being launched in the first quarter of this year, it looks like the plans have changed. I assume that small-p political interests have reined in the BBC development team to ensure that the Beeb doesn't just steam ahead on its own, and that it brings other public-sector players along with it. Which is fair enough. The new site has a project timetable, which is a model of vagueness, specifying four activities, all called 'campaigns', with no intermediate dates specified over the next 18 months. No-one wants to create any hostages to fortune.

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10 April 02005

How many CDs are there in the world? Gracenote and metadata

At the end of last year, I tentatively made the prediction that "the catalogue of music recordings readily available in the northern hemisphere will continue to increase by 50% every five years until 02025 when it may start to plateau or saturate". But I can't test this prediction until I have some reliable measure of the catalogue and of how much of it is 'readily available'.

So far I'm drawing a blank even on the simple measure of how many CD titles have so far been issued. Last week Gracenote announced that their CDDB® database for music recognition has been used two billion times to identify CDs. They claim CDDB "contains the largest online database of music information in the world". As of today it has data for 3,598,785 CDs and 46,002,354 songs (note the iTunes Music Store has only 2.5% of these songs available).

Is CDDB a good measure of the total catalogue of CDs? I've heard reports of up to 5% of CDs not being recognised by CDDB — though the only time I've experienced this was with a spoken word CD — which would suggest that CDDB underestimates the total catalogue. However, it also overestimates the number of CDs because the database contains several duplicate entries. I have the six CDs of the Anthology of American Folk Music, edited by Harry Smith on my iPod, with metadata taken from the CDDB. But two of the six CDs appear twice in the database, and one appears three times. You can see this by going to the web interface for the database, and searching on 'Anthology of American Folk Music' (n.b. a fourth volume was released separately from the original three-volume, six-CD set). Try it for other albums as well.

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23 March 02005

New learning styles for digital environments

Chris Dede has an interesting article in a recent issue of EDUCAUSE on how new generations are approaching learning in new ways as they take for granted web, email, instant messaging and mobile communications, distributed knowledge and associational webs of representations. He uses the term 'neomillennial learning styles' though he is not using 'learning styles' in quite the traditional sense or that attributed to theorist David Kolb.

Many people have written about the changes to teaching, tutoring and mentoring styles that e-learning brings into play. These can be summed up by saying that tutors are no longer positioned as the founts and guardians of knowledge, and become conduits for knowledge from multiple sources, or facilitators of learners constructing their own understandings. (And, yes, before anyone says anything, I know that this shift was already under way in learning theory for a decade or two before e-learning took off.)

The learning styles that Dede suggests, based on his (non-empirical) review, do not break ranks with this, but show the other side of the coin.

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15 March 02005

Classification of online music resources

After four months of keeping my bookmarks on Furl, I thought it was time to reflect on some of what I've collected — particularly in the music resources topic.

I created the music resources topic for items — web pages, databases, print, radio, TV, film/DVD, or anything — that are about music. That includes anything in the tradition of liner notes, reviews, artist interviews and 'paramusical' elements of recorded music like sleeve design.

My set of music resources links runs to 91 items at the time of writing. I've now reviewed and classified all these items (before anyone says anything, yes, I know that using a system that allows easy browsing using tags, like del.icio.us would have made this easier than it is with Furl). This is a work-in-progress research exercise at the moment, like my taxonomy of 'making of' features.

The biggest surprise for me was how many classifications I needed to cover all the bases. I was expecting maybe eight or nine, but ended up with nearly twice that number.

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26 February 02005

More reviews of cultural 'companions'

Here are some notes that form another instalment in my occasional series of postings about commentaries and 'making of' features that aim to help people get more out of cultural works (albums, films, books and so on).

Previous postings in this series include

These notes are about two books I've read this year: Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, about the new Hollywood era of films that held sway between the late '60s and late '70s; and Douglas Wolk's Live at the Apollo, an account of James Brown's career-defining album of that name. As far as I'm concerned, Biskind fails and Wolk succeeds. Here's why.

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31 January 02005

Resources on e-learning in museums, libraries and archives

I'm surprised there aren't more sets of links to e-learning resources in the museums, libraries and archives sector. Perhaps the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council is in the process of addressing this as part of their recent mapping of e-learning.

The best I've found is the E-Learning Knowledge Base, by MacKenzie Ward Research and curated by Nadia Arbach (now E-learning Curator at the Tate) — with thanks to Seb Schmoller for this link. Launched in 2002, the site is still updated, but I suspect it has not fully kept pace with developments. A wiki site, or even some moderated web links facility, would make it easier for others to contribute to the updating, and more likely that they would.

When it's updated, the web site for the elearning group for museums and galleries, libraries and archives will be a useful way of keeping in touch with the latest thinking and events. The eLearning Centre's General Interest Showcase also includes a number of examples from libraries, museums and galleries.

29 December 02004

Lists, lists of lists and meta-lists

The list industry goes into overdrive at this time of year, and Rex Sorgatz has compiled nearly 500 lists, covering everything from architecture to photographs, video games, wine, law and different categories of people. At least a third of the lists are of 'cultural product' — books, films, DVDs and music albums — that you can buy for between £5 and £20.

HMV has compiled a 'poll of polls', based on the end of year lists from the UK's major newspapers and magazines.

Warning: reading these lists can absorb an inordinate amount of time. Making notes will also lead to spending lots of money. Buy only the stuff that that makes such an impression that you remember. The rest will be available at discounted rates later.

21 December 02004

A virtuous circle of free and paid-for material

A couple of months ago I wrote about how I was enjoying Ashley Kahn's book A Love Supreme: the Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album. Since then I've heard two sets of radio documentaries on A Love Supreme — one 30-minute BBC Radio 4 feature by Jez Nelson, and a four-programme series by Courtney Pine on BBC Radio 2 — both featuring extensive contributions from Kahn, and relying on his narrative.

This looks like a fairly close synergy between two paid-for items — Kahn's book and the recently issued deluxe two-CD reissue of Coltrane's album — and the free-to-air broadcast medium. Everybody stands to win from this, and because the copyright owners have realised this, they've co-operated to make good, cost-effective radio and promote sales of back-catalogue recordings and a relatively new book.

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15 December 02004

Latest on the BBC Creative Archive

Here are my notes from a talk given by Paul Gerhardt, Strategic Director of the BBC Creative Archive, at Tate Modern this afternoon.

The current BBC Charter (due to expire in 02006) apparently provides for public access to the BBC archive, but 'access' means going in person to BBC premises to view or listen there. The archive is a huge cultural asset — one that the BBC 'factory' is adding to daily. The original expectation in the Creative Archive team was that they would re-create the broadcast experience, but they quickly recognised that the web encourages sharing rather than just on-demand broadcast.

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14 December 02004

21st Century library services

Yesterday was a big day for announcements about online access to the resources and services you would normally get in a library. The one that has got most attention is Google's press release that they will be providing searchable access to the full text of library books old enough to be no longer under copyright (and possibly out of print) as well as short excerpts of copyrighted works. The agreement with Google is non-exclusive, so in theory Microsoft, Yahoo! etc could develop competing services. The best in-depth features I've found on this are those in the New York Times and John Battelle's Searchblog.

Perhaps less eye-catching, but also interesting, is the announcement that the People's Network Online Enquiry Service will deliver a real-time information service to the public by providing 'live' access to library and information professionals online 24/7. Which sounds a bit like the equivalent of National Health Service Direct to meet all UK citizens' information needs. Here are the details of the Enquiry Service that will operate from March 02005, and according to this information, "the purpose of this service is to provide you with fast and easy access to guidance from trained library staff in your pursuit of information online". [Update 27 May 02005: The service is now operational — see my review comments]

Put these two developments together and you've got a very powerful service, accessible — free at the point of use — to anyone with an Internet terminal. That's real progress in itself. As more music and films eventually fall out of copyright and are properly tagged with metadata, then with time (and a lot of work) it will get even better.

9 December 02004

The limitations of search for supporting learning

Search engines have a high profile on the web, and understandably so. The web changes faster than any human attempt to catalogue it. For most people's purposes in answering specific questions, Google works most of the time — which is a recipe for success.

But the kind of success Google has enjoyed, and the way it has become a part of every web user's vocabulary as well as habits, can create a kind of tunnel vision (the kind where the only tool you have is a hammer, and every problem looks like a nail). Search facilities are necessary and important tools for rich learning resources, and particularly archives, but they have weaknesses, and are by no means sufficient without complementary ways of discovering new material.

As a complement to search, any service that aims to support learning should have some mechanisms for guiding learners (though this doesn't mean constraining them) to explore particular routes.

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6 December 02004

Content vanishes from BBC web sites

At the end of last week the redesigned BBC 6 Music web site was launched. In the process of its revamp, the site has lost much of the specialist content that made it unique. For example, the Kings of the Wild Frontier pages that I wrote about here have gone, as have all the interviews from Andrew Collins' page. The audio (and occasional video) of Hub sessions that I referred to here are no longer available and neither are any of the artist profiles.

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9 November 02004

Outline for social software to enhance personal media collections

I had an idea today for a bit of software and/or web-based service that would combine the features of cataloguing all your personal media collection (CD, DVD, digital files of various formats) and linking each item to the commentary (reviews, interviews, fan comments) that may enrich your experience of the song, album or film. This would combine the database functions of software like Media Catalog Studio with the facilities for sharing and 'social tagging' of resources offered by del.icio.us and Flickr.

It would enable you to compile your own 'boxed set' for your favourite albums, artists and films: the core media content that you've acquired through normal retail channels, plus the 'extras' that you and others have compiled to go with it.

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3 November 02004

Unpacking the digital boxed set concept

Still on the subject of Apple's latest iPod announcement, one element that got less attention than others was the introduction of the concept of the digital box set — in this case 400 U2 tracks bundled together and downloadable with a single click, plus $149. Steve Jobs describes this just over 28 minutes into this stream of the event.

Such commentary as there has been has focused on the pricing, since 400 tracks for $149 works out at a lot less than the 'standard' $0.99 per track. But I find pricing boring: the idea of reducing unit price for bulk purchases is not an innovation to set the pulse racing.

What's interesting about the digital box set is that it recreates the idea of a collection — remember how many people have been saying that downloads herald the end of the album — though I think this first example of the genre is a fluffed opportunity.

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28 October 02004

Towards a taxonomy of 'making of' features

I'm reading Ashley Kahn's A Love Supreme: the Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album, and finding it fascinating. Kahn provides pictures of his sources, from the handwritten covers of the session tapes to the records of which musicians got paid how much for each session. The album was conceived in '64 and released in '65, just like I was, and the book recreates the cultural era of another time, place and race.

Which leads me to ponder what makes a valuable essay on the making of an artwork. Particularly in the DVD age, these 'making of' accounts are increasingly common. Here's a list of a few I've come across — mostly recent ones, with no claims to be the best in their field — and what I think distinguishes them.

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21 October 02004

Pressure building for access to BBC radio archives

A month after Ofcom's mutterings about enforced licensing of the BBC's radio archive, a new report commissioned by DCMS concludes "The BBC should examine how it can enter into joint ventures with the commercial sector when considering future archive-based services." The message seems to be that if the BBC isn't making active use of its archive, it should make it possible for others to do something with it. (And the report goes on: "the lack of any formal relationship between the BBC governors and Ofcom… is a problem.")

There's a certain inevitability about this. As convergence comes to fruition, the digital world has a hell of a lot of frequencies, bandwidth and disk storage to use up (cf. an iPod is an "empty beer glass waiting to be filled") . On the other hand, there's a massive pile of historically and culturally exciting stuff hanging around doing nothing. It's natural that policy makers and regulators should want to get this material to an audience one way or another.

This is an acutely sensitive issue at a sensitive time for the BBC. As anticipated in my previous posting on the BBC's digital direction, they need both to conjure a seductive vision of potential archive offerings, and to position themselves so that they are central to delivery of this vision. In this light, reports that the first pilot of the BBC Creative Archive may be too little too late must seem a bit worrying.

19 September 02004

Usability of museum web sites

Paul Marty and Michael Twidale's article A conceptual framework for analyzing the usability flaws of museum web sites is very clearly written and pretty much delivers what its title promises.

It reports evaluations of 36 museum web sites (I'm guessing that most, if not all, were for US museums), on the basis of which usability issues common to the museums sector are identified. The evaluation approach is based in the sound principles of user scenarios, though the authors implicitly concede that their application of it might be termed 'quick and dirty'. Whether or not you want to pick holes in the methodology, some of the results are certainly interesting, and at least plausible, not to say provocative.

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18 September 02004

This is not a music museum

Next week there's a seminar to consult on proposals for the Manchester District Music Archive.

Now I like a cheeky acronym, but how popular are they going to be when staid grown-ups who control grant funds imagine teenagers googling for MDMA? Very Madchester.

No-one (not even the press) has mentioned comparisons with Sheffield's National Centre for Popular Music, but I will.

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16 September 02004

Enforced licensing of BBC radio archive

There's a new spin on access to the BBC's archive in this article in today's Guardian. The regulator Ofcom is proposing that the BBC could be forced to share its radio archive with the commercial world. The idea is that this would make digital radio more attractive and thus drive take-up by listeners.

In his speech yesterday, Ofcom's Chief Executive says: "My question is… this: would non-discriminatory, non-exclusive access — for a fair payment — to the BBC sound archive allow commercial services to enhance their offering to the listening public; and, crucially, do so without damaging the BBC's ability and commitment to offer a strong digital radio service proposition?"

At the moment, access to this archive is a unique selling point of digital stations like BBC 6 Music (see my posting on their use of the archive) and BBC 7. Ofcom's proposal must be seen as a vote of confidence in the value of what 6 Music is doing, even if it could be seen as threatening their pre-eminent position. It could also, indirectly, accelerate the timescale for offering the kind of service I'd like to develop.

11 September 02004

The BBC's digital direction

Based on interviews in the last fortnight with the BBC's Director General (Mark Thompson), Chief Technology Officer (John Varney), and Director of New Media & Technology (Ashley Highfield), you might hope to be able to discern, by process of triangulation, a clear corporate position and direction. But what you get is a much more postmodern mix of perspectives that only rarely hint at connections.

Given the scale and complexity of the issues, combined with the uncertain organisational context with the impending renewal of the Charter, you can forgive the interviewees sounding a bit tentative in some areas. Here's a summary of the points I found interesting.

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5 September 02004

Cues for learning about and discovering new music

Imagine someone who's interested in jazz and has heard a little bit about Miles Davis's reputation. A bit of web searching may give you an overview of Miles' extensive career, such as this brief overview or this more extensive review. But if you go to Amazon.co.uk and search on "Miles Davis" you get 872 results. The iTunes Music Store (in UK) has a Miles Davis selection comprising 863 songs from among 62 albums, with a strong emphasis on selections from posthumous collections rather than the original albums.

There's a meticulously researched article by Wayne Bremser that highlights one-by-one the differences between the contextual information that is available about albums on iTunes compared with the original vinyl releases.

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30 August 02004

Building a wiki learning resource

Over the last month I've built a web site that allows me to test out a few ideas about collaborative and 're-mixable' learning resources. And to indulge a passion for The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs, my favourite album.

69 Love Songs information is a 'wiki' site. I've touched on wikis briefly before. The technology — which allows many people to edit the content of web pages without knowledge of HTML or restricted logins etc — has been around for several years, though its adoption has remained most enthusiastic with the technical community. I have found one other wiki site devoted to a cultural artefact or artist — a sophisticated site for They Might Be Giants with over 70 contributors — if you know of others, please let me know.

The rest of this posting covers how the site is built and develops, what its potential for learning might be, and the limitations that I have either hit already or expect to hit.

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19 July 02004

BBC 6 Music as a learning resource

Born in the digital era, BBC 6 Music is a radio station at the intersection of traditional 'wireless' programming and less linear, on-demand access to audio and supporting material. It's in the vanguard of mixed (old and new) media and the BBC governors apparently want it to go further and "heighten the level of interactivity, develop the use of the archive and strengthen the station's relationship with its audience", according to this recent Media Guardian article (Media Guardian requires free registration to read its articles).

The Statement of Programme Policy includes an explicit, though very general, statement on listeners' learning: "6 Music aims to extend its audience's understanding of popular music, and programmes will continue to examine the cultural development of music, including less familiar genres like ska and backbeat, supported by information online and on-demand recordings." (As an aside, it's interesting to do a word search for 'learn' through this document to see the different contexts in which it arises for different stations.)

The rest of this (long) article reviews the learning features of 6 Music so far and suggests how they could be extended — using 'learning' in the broad cultural sense that I've referred to before.

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7 July 02004

BBC 6 Music and usability of archives

The campaign to lobby for the BBC Creative Archive is principally concerned with the form in which the archive material is made available, and specifically whether this is 'open' enough to allow (re)use for non-commercial purposes. My lobby is also to consider how the 'user interface' to this massive archive is made usable enough to ensure that everyday Jo(e) Punter can extract some value from it without needing to expend the time and energy that a researcher or artist might be prepared to commit.

The BBC's first digital radio station, 6 Music, is committed to digging up and re-presenting many of the amazing recordings they have in their archive. This week it has re-launched it most archive-based programme — the Dream Ticket, which replays recordings of live gigs and a few BBC sessions — in a tacit acknowledgement that the original format wasn't working. I think one of the problems was that it was serving up the archives in 'lumps' that were too large to be indigestible to the casual listener. The new format breaks the archives down into more refined grains, though this has cons as well as pros.

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29 June 02004

Friends of the BBC Creative Archive

As the BBC announces a "radical manifesto" for its future, heavy on digital Britain and "public value", I've come across a campaign for the BBC Creative Archive. So far the main action has been an open letter, urging that the archive should be: broad, accessible, free (for non-commercial use), whole (i.e. not just excerpts of material), soon, complete (i.e. including independently produced material commissioned by the BBC) and sustainable.

It's too late to sign up for the letter, but you can join a free mailing list to keep in touch. [Update, September 02005: This mailing list has now been superseded by the UK FreeCulture list.] There is also a project page at the Union for the Public Domain, with several links to features on the Creative Archive. See also my earlier posting on the archive.

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1 June 02004

Museums and online learning: a case study

The role of museums in online teaching, learning and research is a sophisticated yet concise paper that gives an account of how the J. Paul Getty Museum has developed its thinking and practice in providing digital resources to support teaching, learning and research, based on its collection.

The paper is interesting for its frank assessment of mistakes and surprises experienced over several years of developing resources. It combines an appreciation of the fundamental disciplines of cataloguing with the importance of open standards, and it touches on the need to realign organisational structures and resources to match emerging structures and practices.

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17 May 02004

Authorial archiving

One more perspective on my current pre-occupation with cultural collections and how we learn from them… Robert Fripp's diary entries for 7th and 14th May 02004 chart his current work on what appears to be a multi-volume archive: The 21st Century Guide to King Crimson; Crimson being Fripp's on-again/off-again band for the last 35 years.

Amidst his notes on the scope of the project and associated web site, I like Fripp's characteristically sanguine yet fatalistic assessment: "Commitment: Likely to be 1-2 days a week on an ongoing basis. Riches, Fame, Wealth: Unlikely for anyone." (See my earlier posting about Fripp's lessons of running artist-focused businesses.) This is different kind of undertaking from Tom Phillips' collection of postcards, but it's kind of fun to compare them.

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16 May 02004

Learning from Tom Phillips: We are the people

Sample postcard from We Are The People exhibition - click to enlargeFrom abstract theorising about cultural collections to concrete practice. Tom Phillips currently has 1,000 (out of his collection of 50,000) postcards on display at the National Portrait Gallery, as part of an exhibition called We Are The People.

Alongside the exhibition, Phillips guides how people can interpret and learn from the collection. There is a book with essays by himself and others, as well as shorter articles and an audio interview on his web site. The web resources also help put the exhibition in the context of Phillips' long-term artistic engagement with postcards.

This is not just a case of an artist switching hats to become a part-time archivist and interpreter. The collection and exhibition are also about collecting and interpreting, for much of Phillips' work is concerned with layers of meaning and the chance connections that occur when you pile one layer on top of another, endlessly. Playful means lead him to serious ends and vice-versa.

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28 April 02004

Mobile information appliances for museums

Earlier this month, the UK's National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) announced its support for a project to develop hand-held, touch-screen, wireless computers that will 'offer a host of relevant information including text, video, pictures and sound' when pointed at a museum exhibit.

The breathless stream-of-buzzwords tone is probably just par for the course in press releases, which invariably concentrate on technological fetishism rather than boring old human behaviour. This project is interesting for showing what's technologically possible; but it's unclear how much attention will be given to the ways in which people's habitual and preferred behaviour in the social space of a museum will affect use of the technology.

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23 April 02004

Cultivating unprogrammed learning

There are some intriguing observations in Measuring the Outcomes and Impact of Learning in Museums Archives and Libraries. For example, "Not all museums, archives and libraries see themselves as places that should primarily on the learning experiences of their users," and apparently many of these organisations do not know why people use their materials and what they learn from them.

On the one hand, this is counter-intuitive: what would you use use an archive for if not to find out stuff and learn from it? On the other hand, it's clear that, confronted with the totality of any library or museum, no-one could anticipate the learning outcomes that any one user would take away.

The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council has set itself the challenging but worthy task of helping organisations "anticipate and respond to many of the wider social challenges by developing socially and culturally relevant opportunities for learning."

In formal education and training settings the learning outcomes are specified and learning experiences can be programmed and engineered to that end. In the less structured settings of museums and archives, the challenge is to create environments where learning can happen: gardening provides a better metaphor than engineering, as the aim is to provide fertile resources that enable users to germinate new understandings.

8 April 02004

Defining cultural learning

I'm interested in how to explore the learning potential of cultural archives and collections — without slipping into semi-animated-catalogue syndrome — so I was grateful to Martin Bazley yesterday for pointing out a useful inclusive definition of learning from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council:

"Learning is a process of active engagement with experience. It is what people do when they want to make sense of the world. It may involve the development or deepening of skills, knowledge, understanding, awareness, values, ideas and feelings, or an increase in the capacity to reflect. Effective learning leads to change, development and the desire to learn more."

This definition isn't particularly concerned with e-learning, but it is nevertheless useful for it — especially when trying to capture some of the more subtle learning that can come from engaging with cultural materials.

The MLA site also has further useful resources connected to its Inspiring Learning for All initiative. I may report further on these when I've had a chance to absorb them more fully.

Martin was speaking at an excellent e-learning seminar in Cambridge, and there are many instructive examples of cultural e-learning resources linked from the seminar web page. [Update, September 02004: the seminar page has unfortunately been removed, but the links included the British Museum's Ancient Egypt site, online resources at the National Maritime Museum, and Hopping down in Kent].

30 March 02004

BBC Creative Archive and 'Martini Media'

There are several interesting points in this speech by the BBC's Director of New Media & Technology. The points that caught my attention were:

  • the first use I have seen of the term 'Martini Media' — anytime, anyplace, anywhere — to denote a concept I have elsewhere referred to as ubiquitous access;
  • some pointers to the future shape of 'BBC On Demand' and the pilot of an Internet Media Player;
  • more news about the BBC's "Creative Archive [which] will give everyone in the UK the freedom to search for and access clips from the BBC's television and radio archives via bbc.co.uk. They will be able to download clips free of charge and use them in a way that will enable them, we hope, to explore their own interests more fully. The clips won't expire, users will be able to keep them forever and will be able to manipulate and add to them."
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11 February 02004

Why digitise cultural collections?

The Facet Publishing web site currently has a free download of the first chapter of Lorna Hughes' recent book, Digitizing Collections: strategic issues for the information manager. This 28-page chapter introduces the costs and benefits of digitisation in a very straightforward and easy-to-read manner.

The book appears to be aimed mainly at curators, librarians and other managers of collections, particularly linked to universities. Its focus is more on higher education, research and scholarship than what might called 'lifelong learning for the rest of us.'

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3 February 02004

Usability of Online Content

I read the paper A Usability Study for Promoting eContent in Higher Education because the title promises a lot — how to optimise the usability of all that stuff we put online, so that people can learn from it — and I wanted to see whether the authors would pull it off.

I think the paper asks the wrong question. I'm not quite sure what the right question is, but reading helped me think where it might be found.

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15 January 02004

Web resources for Theo Angelopoulos films

Still from Angelopoulos's film Ulysses' Gaze, copyrighted materialI've added some more web links to the he Showroom Cinema's web links directory. The BFI tour of Theo Angelopoulos films hits the Showroom with six films at the end of this month and during February. Here are the new links, and here are some more sublime images.

3 November 02003

Online Courses in Contemporary Art Announced

When I wrote about the Tate Galleries' e-learning resources a couple of months ago I said I didn't know of any major arts/culture organisations offering full accredited courses by e-learning.

Since then the Tate has announced details of two new online courses. The Level 1 course is free and starts in January 2004. It looks as thought it will simply offer unsupported, self-managed learning using online materials. But the Level 2 course, available from next October, is a more serious affair, including tutor support and online discussion facilities for groups of up to ten learners.

28 October 02003

Korean Cinema and Carl Dreyer Web Resources

Falconetti in Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, copyrighted materialI've added two more groups of links to the Showroom Cinema's web links directory, which tie in with their film programme. The new links are for Korean Cinema and the work of Carl Theodor Dreyer, the acclaimed Danish director of early silent masterpieces and a few later 'talkies.'

The intention behind the web links is to enrich the experience of people who come to see the more left-field films at the Showroom, and thereby to encourage them back for repeat visits, thus creating a virtuous circle of audience development. By far the most popular links so far have been those for David Lynch — and the No.1 most requested resource is the hints that may (or may not) help you follow the plot of Lynch's Mulholland Drive!

25 October 02003

"Culture Online" first projects announced

The UK Government has announced the first seven projects it will be supporting under the £13 million Culture Online initiative.

The objectives of this initiative include "to open up our cultural institutions to the wider community, to promote lifelong learning and social cohesion [and to] extend the reach of new technologies and build IT skills and support wider and richer engagement and learning by all adults." Although announced by the Arts Minister, Culture Online is also intended to link to Curriculum Online, which is run by the Department for Education and Skills.

It will be interesting to see how well these projects fulfil the criteria of good culture and/or good learning.

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17 October 02003

Life After Fire: Werner Herzog

I've made a couple of additions to the Werner Herzog weblinks that I originally collected and curated a couple of years ago for the Showroom cinema. [Update, 02005: I'm no longer maintaining the Showroom weblinks site, but have transferred and updated all the links in my Werner Herzog Archive on Furl.]

You might not want to live in Herzog's world all the time, but you shouldn't forget it's there, and you should visit regularly. I've also added minor postscripts to the notes I wrote about Herzog in 2001, as well as a few new entries to my list of favourite Herzog quotes.

10 October 02003

Audio and Image: running commentaries on films

The current (Nov 2003) issue of Word magazine includes a feature that rates some of the best and worst DVD commentaries — where those involved in making the film add their views on films, scene by scene. Thus apparently John Boorman reflects candidly on some of his mistakes in making Zardoz, while This is Spinal Tap has a spoof commentary with the characters getting their own back on the director who made such an unflattering portrait of them.

I'm interested in these commentaries because they represent another category in my list of 'para-texts' that aim to augment artworks, including indexes of novels and multimedia about paintings.

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25 September 02003

Text and Index: supporting the reading of culture

In 1987 when I made my second, eventually successful, attempt to read Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, I started keeping notes. These notes comprised a brief précis of the developments in each passage and the cast of characters (new and reappearing) involved. I have a good memory but I needed this charting to keep track of the multiple enfoldings and criss-crossing of the narrative.

My recent web searching shows that I was in good company, and there are a very rich set of online and offline resources devoted to helping readers get more out of this book.

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30 June 02003

Imaginary Evidence by Forced Entertainment

Imaginary Evidence, the Forced Entertainment CD-ROM to which I contributed, is now pretty much complete, and should be available soon. Contact Forced Entertainment direct for more details.

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28 May 02003

Visconti weblinks

I've curated a set of weblinks for the Luchino Visconti season at the Showroom Cinema - reviews, essays and historical background to the major films.